Brent Celek, the longest-tenured member of the Eagles, has played 11 seasons here and will be experiencing only his fifth trip to the playoffs when the team opens at home in the divisional round on Jan. 13.
If his teammates need further reminding that these moments are rare and fleeting, Celek’s postseason career is a book to study.
“This will be my fifth time and we’ve only gotten as far as the NFC championship once,” Celek said after the regular season ended flatly in a meaningless game Sunday against the Cowboys. “All these guys have to understand that this might be it. This opportunity might not come again for anybody. So, let’s step it up, have a great two weeks of practice, and get ready.”
A further reinforcement was provided by the Cowboys themselves, who were in the same position as the Eagles a year ago. They finished 13-3, got the No. 1 seed in the conference, and then lost their first playoff game at home in a shootout with the Packers. All that work and it can disappear just like that.
There are players in the locker room with stories to tell about how the postseason can work the other way as well. Seven Eagles have been on teams that won the Super Bowl. Corey Graham, Dannell Ellerbe, and Torrey Smith did it with Baltimore, LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long with New England, tackle Will Beatty with the Giants (although he was injured and didn’t take part in the playoffs), and Malcolm Jenkins with the Saints.
“When I won the Super Bowl, we had the [No.] 1 seed and we won both games coming through New Orleans,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to do our best to emphasize the significance of the situation we’re in. It’s going to be hard to really show the young guys how few and far between these types of seasons come around. But they don’t disqualify you if you don’t get it, and there’s no guarantee of a Super Bowl if you do get it. What you try to do is stack things up and put yourself in the best position to win, and right now we’re in the best position.”
The Eagles have put themselves in this position three times before, securing the top seed in the conference in consecutive seasons beginning in 2002. The first two opportunities resulted in home losses to the Buccaneers and the Panthers, and the third, culminating with a conference championship in Lincoln Financial Field against the Falcons, sent them to their only Super Bowl appearance in the last 37 years.
Since then, in the four postseasons in which Celek took part, the Eagles were the No. 6 seed twice, in 2008 and 2009, and the No. 3 seed twice, in 2010 and 2013. They had only two home games among the six games that resulted from those opportunities and lost them both, to Green Bay in 2010 and Jenkins’ team in 2013. Ironically, Jenkins is the only member of the Eagles who has experienced a playoff win in the Linc, albeit from the other side.
Nothing is guaranteed, as they said — not home wins, not a return to prominence next season, not an equitable end to what has been a remarkable run — but every other team in the conference would switch places with them right now.
“If we were talking in the spring and I was to tell you that we’d be sitting here 13-3, with a first-round bye and home field advantage and Nick Foles at quarterback, I’d take that all day,” Celek said. “People can talk all they want about what we can do and what we can’t do, but it doesn’t matter. We know what our job is on every single play, and we’ve got to execute, and it’s going to happen.”
If so, it will happen with Foles instead of their young franchise quarterback. And it will have to happen with a different formula than they used when they led the league in points per game for much of the season.
“If anyone says, ‘Can you muster one home game win to get into the NFC championship?’ I think everybody would take those odds,” Jenkins said. “Everybody understands that a running game and defense is what carries you in the playoffs if you don’t have one of those top three elite quarterbacks. So we’re going to have to be able to run the ball and play defense and get those takeaways we’ve gotten all year. Being an outdoor team and with it being cold, I think that we all need to embrace that and use it to our advantage.”
Even with the injuries they have suffered, the advantage is still theirs. Maybe it isn’t what it would have been with Carson Wentz at quarterback, but it remains. The chance doesn’t have to return next season, even with Wentz, and for a player like Celek, whose opportunities have dwindled to a precious few, the next two weeks of preparation are about treating this one as if it is the last. It could be.